A few things from the Big Book of Black Quarterbacks
Vince Evans | 1977-1983, 1987-1995 | Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Raiders/Oakland Raiders
Drafted, 6th round (140 overall) | 100 games (39 starts) | 9,485 yards passing | 52 passing TDs | 74 INTs | 50.6 comp. % | 63.0 QB rating | 1,129 yards rushing | 14 rushing TDs | 39 fumbles
"Drafted [...] as an NFL quarterback with a strong passing arm who could also run for big yardage."—Associated Press
Vince Evans was drafted by the Bears in 1977, even though he'd told the Chicago's director of scouting he didn't want to leave California, and would not play for the Bears. He ended up going, and gave Chicago seven years of mediocre football for its trouble. In the two years he was pressed into extended action, 1980 and 1981, he started a combined 26 games and threw 22 touchdowns against 36 interceptions. By the 1984 season, he was playing for Chicago's USFL Blitz, and in 1985 he was run out of town completely. He caught on with the Denver Gold. The next year the USFL collapsed, and he was out of professional football. Then the 1987 NFL strike happened.
The work stoppage in '87 was an ugly one. The league had gone through a strike five years prior, in 1982, that had forced it into an abbreviated nine-game season. This time, it had no intention of shedding games, and so put out word that it would be fielding replacement teams, full of scab players—an audacious act of employer militancy that also revealed the owners' almost-suicidal hostility to their own product.
When the word went out, teams received a massive wave of calls from former and aspiring players, according to the Raiders' coach at the time, Tom Flores. It made sense—whatever the circumstance, this was a chance to play in real-ish NFL games, after all. For many black quarterbacks especially, the calculus was clear: This would be their best, maybe their last chance to get into, or back into, the league. In 1987, the number of black quarterbacks who threw at least one pass tripled. The romance of this is obvious for players like Tony Robinson, the inspiration for Shane Falco in The Replacements, who seized on their one chance and held on for dear life.
But for players like Evans who'd already spent time in league, it was a terrible decision to confront. Do you take this opportunity to make it back into the NFL, and in doing so, betray your former and hopefully future colleagues? Your friends? Can you afford to take a moral stand when external forces have conspired against you for so long? Evans took his shot, though he was ambivalent at best about it.
"When this opportunity presented itself for me to be back in the NFL," he said at the time, "it was kind of a tough decision because of the sensitivity of it, but I had to do what I thought was best for me at the time. I've got a wife and a little girl. I still believe I'm making the right decision. I hope that those guys who are picketing and standing for what they believe is right understand—and I respect them for what they stand for, because I was once part of the union. But given the circumstances I'm in right now, I wanted to go for it."
The striking players didn't see it like that. Here's the scene as Evans entered the stadium for the first game of the season:
So it has come to this for Vince Evans: Slipping in the side entrance on a bus full of strikebreakers, as the real Raiders stood in the rain, taunting him.
"The guys were really looking kind of vicious, calling us 'scabs' and everything," Evans said. "The only one I recognized was (tight end) Todd Christensen. He had some choice words.
"I like to look at things like we're all human beings. Why demean a man for what he believes is right?"
Through the first three scab games, Evans was the best quarterback in the Potemkin NFL. In the first game against Kansas City, which the Raiders won 35-17, Evans threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards and another score. He'd finish his three-game run having thrown for 630 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions, and rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
And despite his reputation as a real sonofabitch, Al Davis stands tall in the retelling of this era. He'd been drafting black quarterbacks since back in the '60s, and he rostered Evans without a second thought in '87. Al Davis got it, more through opportunism than any bleeding-heart tendencies. And Davis also understood that the strike, which was focused mainly on bringing free agency to the NFL, risked alienating players from ownership just as they were being granted a greater freedom of movement. So while many owners were trying to break their players and strongarm them back across the picket line, Davis remained silent. But when a few of his own players came to him, pledging loyalty to Davis and the Raiders ahead of the NFLPA, Davis told them to get the hell out of his office and go stand outside with their teammates, until they all came in together.
In spite of this soft approach to the players' union, or perhaps because his decisions had earned him enough leeway to get away with it, Davis kept Evans on after the strike season. He'd play another seven seasons with the Raiders, and become one of the most respected members of the team. He saw the most extended action in his last season, 1995, when he started three games for an injured Jeff Hostetler at age 40.
Evans is a success story, but there's something almost unbearably sad about it. He got his shot. He just had to cross a picket line to get it.
Colin Kaepernick | 2011-2013 | San Francisco 49ers
Drafted, 2nd round (36 overall) | 32 games (23 starts) | 5,046 yards passing | 31 passing TDs | 11 INTs | 59.8 comp. % | 93.8 QB rating | 937 yards rushing | 9 rushing TDs | 15 fumbles
"His intelligence and competitiveness could make him a star."—Yahoo
Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California's state prison have tattoos. I don't know that as fact, but I've watched enough "Lockup" to know it's close to accurate. I'm also pretty sure less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos. There's a reason for that.
This is how Sporting News writer David Whitley opened a column on Colin Kaepernick's tattoos in November 2012. In 23 games over a season and a half as starter, Kaepernick is 17-6, has thrown 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, and been to the Super Bowl and NFC championship game.
The point actually worth talking about with regard to Kaepernick—along with RGIII, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and even Nick Foles—is that he's running an offense that upends the traditional idea that an offensive system that relies on a running quarterback is fundamentally less complex than the kind of passing offense that, say, Peyton Manning might lead. This might have been true in the past, to some degree, as some offenses would stick a mobile quarterback in a vanilla offense, and just turn him loose if his second, or sometimes first, option wasn't running free. Today, though, offenses predicated on the threat of a running or mobile quarterback are common, and require split-second decisions from quarterbacks on the run. It's a difference of kind, not degree—the difference between doing what Fred Astaire did, and what Ginger Rogers did.
"There are no gimmicks in our offense," pistol innovator Chris Ault says. Ault coached Kaepernick at Nevada, and says that the offense actually was developed as an antidote to the problem, as he saw it, with the shotgun spread offense.
"When the shotgun offenses came out, I enjoyed watching those teams move the football," he says. "The thing I did not like was the idea of a running back getting the ball running east and west. We have always been a north and south running game offense."
In a read-option offense, the quarterback has to make many of the same reads that you'd find on a traditional drop-back play, but at full speed, while avoiding an unblocked lineman or linebacker. "Where is the safety?" is no longer a binary check (Oh, he's in a deep zone, I should have a skinny seam here), but a pressing concern involving the risk of personal bodily harm (OH GOD, HE HAS FILL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE READ DEFENDER SQUEEZED THE LANE. *splat*). And then: Has the "arc" lead blocker given you enough room to make a gain after you've beaten the linebacker—is this the one who will open his hips early on a juke, or is that his backup?—or should you throw downfield, at which point, where's the safety?
Backwards, and in heels.
(It can work the other way. Manning's offense in particular is a good example of how the opposite can be true for pass-heavy offenses as well. Manning obviously puts in an immense amount of preparation to make his pre-snap reads as efficient as they are, which in turn forces defenses to "declare" what they are doing. But this actually means that Manning ends up seeingless complicated defenses than other quarterbacks in the league. And because of the nature of checking into plays on the fly every snap, Manning's playbook has always been stocked with far fewer actual plays than you might think. This is to take nothing away from him—the man is a savant, and there is a very big brain behind that very big forehead—but simply to illustrate that "cerebral" play manifests in a lot of unexpected ways.)
The point isn't to elevate a read-option, or other mobile-friendly offenses, ahead of traditional drop-back systems. Read-option efficiency dropped considerably this year, though it should be noted that Super Bowl champion Seattle and NFC runner-up San Francisco actually used itmore frequently. Instead, consider this a belated invitation to call your favorite read-option quarterback a cerebral, thinking man's player—so long as he isn't getting flattened every other down by that safety charging the gap.
Cam Newton | 2011-2013 | Carolina Panthers
Drafted, 1st round (1 overall) | 48 games (48 starts) | 11,299 yards passing | 64 passing TDs | 42 INTs | 59.8 comp. % | 86.4 QB rating | 2,032 yards rushing | 28 rushing TDs | 18 fumbles
"He was a one-year wonder. Akili Smith was a one-year wonder."—Mel Kiper, ESPN
Early last December, SportsCenter ran a feature on Cam Newton's purported attitude adjustment and its deterministic effect on the Panthers' turn from doormat to one of the best teams in the NFC. On the surface, it's typical brainless post facto masturbation about athletic success through maturity. But it also serves as a compelling illustration of just what happens when you aren't as deferential as the propriety police would have you be.
Cam Newton is not demure—he's maybe less reserved than any other prominent quarterback of the past decade. And, as he's found, being the unhammered nail in the NFL opens you up to critics who broadly apply their old-fart, authoritarian sensibilities to you, with unfortunate results.
Let's start with the Black people be like this smash-cut above. This is secondary to the broader, dumber confection of stupid operating in this argument, but it serves as a foundation for it. It seems to say, Look, we know this is basically threadbare and stupid, so how about we smuggle in this cultural judgement that we won't outright say, but just lay at your feet knowing that you'll make the connection. It's like ESPN lip syncing a Louis CK riff.
The damnedest thing is that everyone knows how this works. Before going in on Cam—or J.R. Smith, or Johnny Manziel, or whoever the hell—the handwringers' qualifying statement is invariably, Well, it would be different if his team were winning, but … before wandering off into whatever homily they were trying to get at anyway. And the thing is, it absolutely would—but that's the problem, isn't it?
Young Cam is obviously quite pleased with himself in that first SC clip. It's from the 2012 Pro Bowl, when the first Pete Prisco story came up about other Pro Bowlers freezing out Newton after he'd offended them in some way. But Cam Newton has often been pleased with himself, and that hasn't stopped him or his teams from being successful. It may have helped! There is, in fact, a pretty strong body of evidence that suggests that being kind of an ass is actually positively correlated with being successful. Hell, they wrote entire books in tribute to the power of Michael Jordan's and Steve Jobs's dickishness. Maturity, at least as limned by the sports media, is meaningless, just a nebula of bullshit and old axioms with which to surround whatever kind of story happens to be on hand. It's easy to lose sight of that, though, when Skip Bayless is clubbing you over your head with Russell Wilson day after day.
But we've been having this argument about Newton from even before he entered the NFL. In spring 2011, Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, a white guy who played linebacker at Illinois, crucified Newton in a pre-draft scouting report:
Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Nawrocki has carved out a niche for himself as the fearless, dyspeptic critic of black guys' comportment (see his scouting report for Geno Smith), but he's really only channeling the ancient, mostly suppressed chauvinism of pro football's management class, which flowers anew in the runup to every draft. That's when we hear about players' "character issues," a broad-unto-meaninglessness category under which everything from pot smoking to sexual assault gets classified. That's when we hear about attitude problems and "fake smiles" and a "selfish, me-first makeup." (It's anyone's guess how much of this is disinformation promulgated in the hopes of sandbagging a desired prospect. Either way, there's the operating assumption that NFL management types care enough about these traits to factor, say, the relative sincerity of a smile into a personnel decision.)
Things get particularly dicey for black quarterbacks, for whom the old assumptions about black athletes' innate anti-social tendencies run up against the football culture's demand that quarterbacks be flinty-eyed leaders of men. If you've read this far, you'll have noticed that the things Nawrocki said about Newton were the same things people said about Joe Lillard and Joe Gilliam and Randall Cunningham and any number of other black quarterbacks. This is a very old game, and the fact that players with supposedly bad attitudes have succeeded and players with supposedly good attitudes have failed doesn't seem to prevent people from playing it still. Newton should've demonstrated the folly of this particular line of analysis once and for all. And yet here we are: Cam Newton, who won a freaking national championship in college, is a winner now because he learned some manners, according to ESPN.
Michael Vick | 2001-2006, 2009-2013 | Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted, 1st round (1 overall) | 127 games (108 starts) | 21,489 yards passing | 128 passing TDs | 85 INTs |56.2 comp. % | 80.9 QB rating | 5,857 yards rushing | 36 rushing TDs | 91 fumbles
"With an awesome talent like Vick, the only concern will be how long it takes him to develop into a top-of-the-line, pure passer."—Mel Kiper, ESPN
There's this weird thing about the old Michael Vick highlights on YouTube, and elsewhere on the internet: Once you dig back into his Falcons heyday, the video is almost all in slow motion. The confluence of the NFL's totalitarian media licensing in the digital age, low quality source files, and dismaying schoolmarms scrubbing all Vick content from the web has left it oddly barren of full-speed video of the most exciting, baffling player of the last 15 years. In a way it's fitting, because Michael Vick didn't make sense at full speed.
Everything comes back to 4.25. Whatever else Michael Vick was—the first black quarterback taken first overall, or the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards, or the first to have a meme named after his clinic visits, or the man who organized a dogfighting ring that drowned, shot, electrocuted, and hanged dozens of animals—he'll always be the guy who outran the NFL and every principle of offense it had for a few years. But the sneaky important part of his legacy in football is the way the league caught back up.
Vick was never a bluntly effective quarterback. In more than a few years, his albatross passing outweighed whatever positives he produced on the run—the reductio ad absurdum coming in 2006, when he became the first quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season, but was so ineffectual throwing the ball that his DYAR, a cumulative metric of production, came out to 1, making him the Nolan Ryan of quarterbacks. (Peyton Manning had 2,490 DYAR this season, Nick Foles 1,072.) But his highlights were so impossible, so outside the parameters of terrestrial football, that, like Ryan, everyone started to look for The Next Vick before we fully understood whether the one we already had was actually effective. It's natural, in the evolution of the sport/NEXT vein, but it was the wrong question. What they should have been asking was, Just what the hell do you do with a Michael Vick?
The problem was that Vick began in essentially the tail end of the NFL's Mesozoic era. Denny Green and Mike Martz had begun nudging the NFL into the air, but Vick played for Dan Reeves, a stubborn old bastard who, like a proper football psychopath, once rushed back from open heart surgery inside of two weeks to return to the sideline. Reeves insisted on a run-heavy system, and tried to incorporate Vick's running the way he had with a young John Elway, and by his second season, 2002, it was working: Vick put up what was probably the best season of the first half of his career, throwing for 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, and running for 777 yards and another eight touchdowns. But Reeves was a disagreeable sonofabitch, often clashing with Vick, and in 2004 he'd be replaced by Jim Mora, Jr. and his intricate West Coast offense.
In his first year under Mora, Vick struggled, putting up total yardage numbers similar to those in his 2002 season, but doubling his interception and sack rates while converting just 27 percent of his third down attempts. He was bad. And worse, Mora never got him to buy into the system. He'd tell his former coach in a 2010 interview, "The [scouting report] DVDs used to pile up in my car." Mora struggled to adapt to Vick, too, as he oversimplified his offense in ways like having Vick only read one side (or quarter) of the field at a time, or trimming down route trees to the point of ineffectiveness.
The thing is, Vick was worth the headaches, because no one has ever been more physically suited to play quarterback. He could break an 80-yard run, or bomb a perfect 60-yard spiral on the move. He also threw insane interceptions, waved the ball around as if it were a hanky, and could crack a rib while tying his shoe, but the impossibility, the improvisational allegrissimo of a Mike Vick scramble, equalized games in ways that didn't always seem fair. How was it right that the Falcons could go three-and-out over and over on a series of overthrown passes and balls in the dirt, only to have Vick pull a 56-yard run and a bootleg sprint to the pylon for a score on the next two plays? In the clip below, a ridiculous highlight from Vick's playoff evisceration of the Packers at Lambeau, John Madden makes what was a pretty common observation about Vick: You can do everything right, but still be wrong. But the reason Vick was so fascinating was that the opposite was true too. He could do everything wrong, but still end up right. So what would happen if someone ever got him being right to begin with?
Vick came into the league in the afterglow of Cunningham and Slash, and Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb were both established as real deal rookies. And other mobile quarterbacks, like John Elway and Steve Young (who ran the same 4.53 40 as Colin Kaepernick), had just wrapped up Hall of Fame careers. But there's a legitimate case to be made that the running quarterback was never really accepted as a design, and not a final resort, until Vick rearranged the calculus of what's possible, even if he never got there himself.
The lessons learned with Vick show up in how young, athletic quarterbacks are handled now. They aren't just crammed into a West Coast offense and instructed to only run if absolutely necessary, or tucked behind a run-heavy line and told to just make something happen. They're drafted into systems that accommodate them: think Russell Wilson in Seattle or Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, or, for a little while at least, Robert Griffin III in Washington. Jim Harbaugh's offense probably doesn't look the same without the Michael Vick era. Neither does Chip Kelly's, for that matter. The fundamental ways that football is conceptualized today—speed, misdirection, athleticism—can be found in the contrails that Vick left as he burned through the league.
It's a cautionary tale, a kaleidoscoping mess of missed opportunities—for Vick, of course, who never truly applied himself until after his bid in Leavenworth and ended up as a talented but undeniably lesser version of his best self, but also for the league, which needed a whole generation of quarterbacks to figure out just what to do with him. Imagine Vick running the pistol last year, taking advantage of play-action passes in ways he never could in those traditional shotgun sets from Atlanta. He'll latch on to some team this year, and maybe win a starting job, or maybe not. But for the guy who starred in the single coolest football commercial ever, and who lives on as a Madden demigod, it will always seem like there should have been more.
Kordell Stewart | 1995-2005 | Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens
Drafted, 2nd round (60 overall) | 126 games (87 starts) | 14,746 yards passing | 77 passing TDs | 84 INTs | 55.8 comp. % | 70.7 QB rating | 2,874 yards rushing | 38 rushing TDs | 44 fumbles
"Whenever Stewart gets into games this season, anything will be possible."—Beaver County Times
From the time capsule, circa 1995:
For a few seconds each Sunday, he runs past the moving vans, cuts through the courtrooms, shakes off the temporary injunctions and steamrollers Art Modell on his way into the end zone. He plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but when rookie Kordell Stewart touches the ball, the whole country stands and cheers as if each point he scores strikes a blow against seat licenses, $350 Super Bowl tickets and Houston Oiler owner Bud Adams's hair. In an otherwise dark NFL season, number 10 in black and gold is a small flicker of fireworks.
Slash was a phenomenon in '95, enough that even Peter King found himself adjusting his khakis a little. It seems funny now, in hindsight, that Kordell Stewart could enrapture an entire league—he got a Nike commercial, for god's sake—by being OK at a bunch of things. But he was fun, however ridiculous the oversell. Pittsburgh lost in the Super Bowl in Stewart's rookie season, and he was the starting quarterback by 1997, when he continued that great Steelers tradition of losing an AFC championship game at home. By 2000, Pittsburgh was looking for its next quarterback in the draft, though he held on for another few years, including a surprise 13-3 season in 2001 and another home loss in the AFC title game.
A pretty good rule of thumb is that exciting players, in any sport, have the online highlight reels they deserve. Kordell's top three consist of, in order: a 2:22 video of still photos of Slash doing things; an 80-yard touchdown run during which, as he is breaking away from a pack of Panthers, his own receiver catches up to him—quickly, easily—before throwing a block and fading away; and an NFL.com video that's been taken down by the NFL. Overrated, oversold, gay-baited at every turn, Stewart now hangs out on the fringes of the reality-TV multiverse.
Aaron Brooks | 1999-2006 | Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders
Drafted, 4th round (131 overall) | 93 games (90 starts) | 20,261 yards passing | 123 passing TDs | 92 INTs | 56.5 comp. % | 78.5 QB rating | 1,534 yards rushing | 13 rushing TDs | 64 fumbles
"Shy and untested, Brooks had athletic ability that made him a developmental project."—Associated Press
If Aaron Brooks wasn't the best quarterback of the pre-Brees Saints, he was almost certainly the most representative of Saintsdom in that period. Brooks, like the Saints, vacillated between mildly promising, vaguely competent, and slapstick awful—often within the same game. It's fitting, then, that he was involved in the two very Saintsiest plays of that decade. Throwing the most self-assured all-the-way-backwards pass in the history of the NFL:
And the River City Relay, which saw the Saints, down seven, score a last-second 75-yard touchdown on a deeply uncoordinated series of laterals … only to have kicker John Carney miss the extra point: